BANJUL, Gambia – Gambia's opposition parties are rallying together behind a single candidate for the first time in decades, forming a coalition they hope will oust longtime President Yahya Jammeh, who has been accused of human rights abuses throughout his 22-year rule.
United Democratic Party candidate Adama Barrow faces Jammeh in Thursday's vote, and his supporters say their social media campaign is drawing younger voters frustrated with the corruption and violence that has marked Jammeh's time in power.
Jammeh, though, says the West African country has seen its fastest economic development during his rule and he is prepared to develop it further. He also told supporters he has divine intervention on his side.
"My votes are with Allah and Allah has already decided what will happen on Election Day," he said at a rally this week, according to state newspaper the Daily Observer.
In the capital on Tuesday, election volunteers picked up their materials including the green, silver and purple ballot drums that people will use to cast their votes. The third color is for the only opposition party that didn't join the coalition of eight others.
Opposition coalition chair Fatoumata Tambajang said the coalition hopes that the popular support they are seeing on the campaign trail will translate into votes, and intimidation will fade.
"For the first time in the history of the country, the coalition of political parties have resolved and recommitted to salvage Gambia from 22 years of tyranny under President Jammeh," said coalition chair Tambajang. "This is by popular demand. A demand from the population who have suffered enough."
Jammeh, who took power in a coup in 1994, is running for a fifth five-year term. Rights groups accuse Jammeh of corruption and accuse him of human rights violations against political opponents, journalists, and gays and lesbians.
The sliver of a country, surrounded by Senegal and a small Atlantic coastline, has a population of about 1.9 million. Reliant on tourism and agriculture, Gambia has seen an exodus of citizens trying to migrate to Europe on dangerous water routes in recent years.
While Jammeh touts his contributions to Gambia's economy, critics accuse him of having amassed personal wealth from the country's coffers.
Rights groups worry intimidation and a lack of equal air time will show at the voting booths.
"The opposition isn't competing on a level playing field. While they have some access to state media during the two-week campaign, the ruling party's domination of state media in the lead up to the campaign and the government's longstanding intimidation of independent journalists and opposition activists — exemplified by the jailing of 30 opposition members in July — remains a clear threat to the fairness of the election," said Jim Wormington, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Three opposition party members died in detention earlier this year after protests calling for electoral and political reforms. Fifteen opposition supporters are now serving three-year prison sentences.
Dr. Isatou Touray, one of the independent candidates who chose to join the coalition, remains optimistic, citing the will of the people.
"I am very confident that the opposition will win this year," she said. "We already know the state is a repressive one. We know that there are human rights abuses, and we are letting people know that this is the time they must express their opinions in numbers."